I saw a flash.
It was the metal of a knife. The biggest blade I’d ever seen in my six years on earth, in the hands of one of the men surrounding the cow. It was black and white, just like the cows in England. They held it with strong arms. I thought they were cuddling it but I smelled fear. It had started creeping into my nostrils like I had crept into the shed a little way up the street from my mother’s family house in Pakistan.
The wedding preparations were in full swing that night. I’d never seen so many people rushing about with so many colourful things in their hands and on their heads. Never had my ears heard so many different noises all at once. A cacophony of adults shouting, children screaming and the street workers outside, hitting the metal constantly like the ticking of a very loud clock.
Pakistan was dusty, noisy and big. And I was allowed to roam. Now at dusk, I found myself peering through a hole in half a door, wondering what was happening in this secret room. The men, in their dirty tunics, chatted quickly as they prepared themselves. A bulb hung behind them, lighting the room, swaying. In its light I saw sweat on their moustached faces. But they were different. No smiles like the people putting decorations up in the house. No funny banter like the men who sat in front of hot bubbling pots conjuring up orange sweet jalaybee for the wedding guests.
The men wiped the sweat with one hand and seemed to cement their feet into the sandy ground. I didn’t move. Nobody knew I was there, crouched between cool stone wall and splintered door in a new sparkly pink outfit my aunt had bought me from the bazaar earlier that day. I was one of those children in mystery books who make a discovery in a strange and foreign place. I was a special child. Maybe a book would be named after me and my adventure.
The cow made a noise. It sounded like a deafening sneeze. I put my hands over my ears but didn’t avert my gaze. No blinking. I could see less of the cow now as the men had got closer. Huddling. But I did see another flash, this time it was across the thick throat of the animal, followed by a splurge of red. The men’s muscles tensed as they held on, their feet shuffled as they struggled to stay standing, fighting the strength of the cow who only made a laboured choking sound. The room was getting redder as the blood splattered onto the men’s clothes and onto the floor. It was on the light bulb and their faces. I followed it, watching it become a river, running down past me and out into the sewage gully that lined the street.
I held my breath and plastered myself to the wall so it wouldn’t touch me and my new shiny clothes. Then I jumped up and ran. It ran beside me, the muddy water changing colour with every stride. It was following me all the way to the house as I dodged cyclists with trill bells and watched for horses and carts clip clopping through the street.
I ran around busy people into the big house with white stone walls and my mother spotted me. “There you are! It’s getting dark outside, you shouldn’t be running around. Come inside and play.”
I looked behind to make sure there was no more blood. Another child grabbed my hand and pulled me away. I was woven into a group of glittering youngsters clapping and jumping, giggling and running in and out of the bustling elders. The cow was forgotten.
Until the next day.
The day of my uncle’s wedding. The reason we’d come to Pakistan. Breakfasts of boiled eggs and parathas were passed around. A ladle was used to pour small cups of the hot sweet tea. We had to take turns to eat because there were too many mouths to feed. My eldest aunt sat crouched on the floor of the kitchen, which wasn’t like ours in England. It was all on the floor. A tap in the corner with no sink. A couple of stoves and other strange cooking utensils I didn’t recognise. But I did know that lots of wonderful tasting food was magically produced in this Pakistani kitchen.
After breakfast the mothers gathered their children, my many cousins, and found a space in the rooms to bathe and dress them in their brightest, newest clothes. There was lots of laughter, shouts of “still still!” and screaming and crying when combs were pulled through knotty hair.
The men kept out of the house once they were dressed. Red flowers on the breasts were their only adornments. They had jobs. To make this wedding happen. It was my dad who first mentioned the cow. “There are a lot of guests, we hope the cow will be enough to feed everyone,” I heard him say to mum.
I stopped playing with a buckle on my sandal and tapped my dad’s leg. “Dad, dad, do we have to eat the cow?”
He looked down at me and smiled. “Yes, we are all going to eat it today at the wedding. It won’t moo, I promise. You will like it.” He laughed.
I wasn’t sure. But I let mum finish getting me ready and then helped her get my sisters ready. Mum took out a red lipstick and began putting it on without looking in the mirror. She only wore makeup on weddings. But not a lot of it, like other mums. I thought she looked nice. She turned to me and asked if I wanted to wear the lipstick. I looked at it and it was red like blood. I said yes, I’d like to wear lipstick too.
I liked the wedding day. Our mums were so busy we could run off and play. It was particularly fun on the roof, where we had lots and lots of room to run around in the sun. That day I remember we caught a lizard. A group of us surrounded it. My cousin Nazima took off her sandal and hit it. I’ll never forget what happened next. The lizard tore in two and both parts lay wriggling on the ground. We watched in amazement until we were called downstairs.
We were squashed and pushed around downstairs as we caught little glimpses of my uncle dressed in a suit with lots of necklaces of money and flowers around his neck. They looked so heavy I wondered how he could walk. It was now time to go to the wedding hall to eat. Mother rounded us up with my baby sister in her arms and bundled us into a car.
I started wondering what the cow would taste like.
Then I fell asleep.
When I awoke, I smelled food. We were sat at a long table and big dishes were being placed in front of us. I tried not to think of the cow. A plate was placed in front of me and mum handed me a roti. I just looked at it.
Dad came over and asked if we had everything. Mum nodded. He leaned in and said “there’s plenty of food, nothing to worry about. There’ll even be enough to distribute afterwards.”
“Who do you give it to afterwards?” I asked him.
He gently tapped me on the head. “To all the people who don’t have enough money to buy the meat. Poor people.”
I turned back to the table. Ripped into my roti and scooped out some of the spicy-smelling meat. I put it into my mouth and chewed.
It tasted delicious.
Hear Shabnam Younus reading Slaughter at the launch of The Real Story project on October 19, 2011 at The Deaf Institute, Manchester: